If you’ve ever look through your grandma’s old cookbooks, you might have seen a true horror of midcentury American cooking: the savory Jell-O salad. For more than a decade, American went wild for the idea of Jell-O filled with other foods. Everything from shrimp to tomatoes to mayonnaise found its way into Jell-O molds nationwide.
Today, that sounds incredibly disgusting. To understand why it was such a fad, it’s important to understand Jell-O’s background.
Back before the days of powdered, instant food, gelatin and jellied foods were incredibly hard to make. Most recipes involved boiling the hooves of calves, the bones and swim bladders of sturgeon, or the ears and hooves of pigs, for hours at a time.
The eventual result was a cloudy brown gel that would often contain carrots and onions. This “Calf Foot Jelly” was considered a delicacy, because the texture was so novel at the time. It was also a way to preserve older meat and use extra parts of their livestock.
Sometimes, people would sweeten this Calf Foot Jelly and turn it into a dessert. However, this was more expensive, because sugar and honey were valuable resources. It also took even longer to make than the savory dish. In general, it wasn’t a common dish to make.
That’s where the crazy rich come in. There’s nothing the extremely wealthy like more than one-upping each other. Sweet gelatin dishes took a long time to make and used expensive ingredients. That made them a perfect way to flaunt wealth at parties.
Having a big, brightly colored gelatin dish at your ball showed that you had the staff, resources, and refinement to waste on a completely frivolous, pretty food. This association would last well into the 19th century.
As the Industrial Revolution kicked into play, the components of gelatin became easier to find. Gelatin ingredients like isinglass, or the result of boiling sturgeon swim bladders, could be purchased at markets. It was still a labor-intensive dish, but the upper middle class could now find the ingredients themselves.
Instead of being reserved for the nobility, gelatin dishes became more common with socialites and upper-class wives. That led to the first shift in how gelatin was perceived.
The 19th century was a time of incredibly strict gender ideas. Even food was a gendered subject. For example: meat and potatoes? Masculine! Steak and hash browns were hearty, rugged, filling foods, so of course they were “male.”
Because of that, there was a hole where “feminine” foods should live. A feminine food needed to be dainty, delicate, and most of all – pretty. Gelatin dishes filled that perfectly.
At tea parties and salons throughout Europe and America, savory gelatin “salads” joined the finger sandwiches and biscuits. These salads were still time-consuming to make, and they could be poured into molds to look pretty. That made them a perfect “feminine” food to contrast against the “masculine” meat and potatoes.
Another point in gelatin’s favor was that it kept things neat and tidy. When all the salad ingredients were encased in gel, they couldn’t get away to cause a mess. That made them a more refined, proper kind of salad, which was very important in the Victorian era.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that gelatin became a mass hit. Jell-O was trademarked in 1897. Over the next few decades, different flavors were introduced. It was in the 1930s, though, that it really took off.
In the 1930s, Jell-O surged in popularity. Sugar rations from WWI ended, so Jell-O was back in mass production. Furthermore, the Great Depression had hit. Just as gelatin had helped people in the 17th and 18th centuries stretch their supplies, Jell-O helped homemakers add bulk to their meals.
Plenty of weird Jell-O salads came out of the 1930s. Jell-O developed a lime flavor to “complement” savory ingredients. Entire cookbooks came out about lime Jell-O. It was considered a truly flexible food, with savory and sweet applications.
It was in the 1950s that things got weird. After WWII, there was a shift in American culture. Women were no longer “just” homemakers. They were also frequently working paid jobs, as well. However, the pressure to be a perfect housewife on top of their career was intense.
WWII had provided the market with thousands of “instant” foods, and Jell-O fit that mold perfectly. Unfortunately, there was a serious stigma against using instant foods at home. Women would deem each other lazy and bad wives for serving instant coffee instead of regular, for example.
The solution most 1950s women turned to? Use the instant products, but make them look fancy. Jell-O to the rescue!
Want a fish dish? Why not make a “Lemon Salmon Tower?”
Want something a little fancier? “Jellied Lamb Salad!”
The important aspect of all of these recipes is that they didn’t involve spending hours in the kitchen. They involved boiling the Jell-O, scooping things out of cans, stirring everything up, and then sticking it in the fridge in your fanciest mold overnight. Easy!
The end result would look like it took a ton of work. It still carried the connotations of “fanciness” for older generations, so mothers-in-law would be less judgmental. Best of all, while the Jell-O was setting, the woman making it could work on the million other things she was expected to accomplish. It was efficient.
The weird Jell-O salad craze lasted from the 50s well into the 60s. However, in the 70s and 80s, sugar became the devil of dieters everywhere. That meant that using Jell-O in savory dishes was Out. Jell-O reacted by making sugar-free versions, but it was too late. Jell-O as a savory food was done.
Today, Jell-O is a tasty snack or a kids’ dessert, not a main course. There are still plenty of savory Jell-O recipes out there if you want to try them, of course. Just be prepared for some weird looks if you try to bring a Ranch Tomato Aspic to the next house party.